We were two middle-aged women friends, looking to catch a bit of divorce-stress R&R. We chose Sanibel-Captiva because it was warm, a relatively short flight away from New York, and has exceptional wildlife and nature-related activities to offer, including great beachcombing, which we both like.
We landed, as luck would have it, in the Holiday Inn, and that turned out to be a great choice--good value for Sanibel, and better-than-average amenities for a Holiday Inn, including a decent refrigerator and microwave in the room. The room itself was your basic model, not huge, but perfectly fine for two friends who weren't there to sit indoors. The location, directly on a great Gulf-side beach, is superb, the landscaping is exceptional, and there are ibis and herons in the hotel ponds, and sometimes (apparently) alligator as well. There is very good coffee in the lobby, a small but nice pool with a bar (that closes early, unfortunately), nice beach chairs (some with shades), bicycles to rent and pleasant, efficient staff. The hotel restaurant was uninspiring--expensive, a bit pretentious without the food or the service being particularly good. Breakfast was better than dinner, but a good honest coffee-shop would have been more welcome, and after the first day we went elsewhere.
We found the hotel to be very quiet-- patronized by a few families and a lot of other quiet people like ourselves. People set their shell finds out on their windowsills to be admired, a local tradition. Expect to climb with your luggage if you are on the second floor--they don't have busboy service or elevators.
Sanibel-Captiva had more than enough attractions to keep us outdoors every day for a week, and we didn't get to everything. I wouldn't go there for the fine dining, but we weren't into food. We found decent fish-and-baked potato with choice of soup or salad to start at Timbers Fish Restaurant, and a huge menu of varied choices at The Island Cow, which serves breakfast and lunch as well as dinner.
For outdoor activities, we recommend: Captiva Cruise's half-day excursion to La Costa Island's southernmost beach, which is wild, protected park and magic if seeing osprey up close feeding their young is your idea of heaven, or you like exceptional shell collecting or beach walking. The longer, full-day excursion to the more developed northern end of the island was more crowded, and neither as interesting nor as rich in wildlife.
The tram ride through the Ding Darling nature preserve was disappointing--the woman who talked pitched her spiel so low, even the children who were there thought it was dumb. We dwelt at excruciating length on plants and rushed past the birds and the one alligator. I don't think all the tram-ride lecturers are like this--this one seemed rather inexperienced--so it might pay to ask for guidance ahead of time.
Later we walked part of the same drive though the reserve, which was much better (forget the hot, unscenic Indigo Trail). Bicycling would been an even better way to do it, with a decent guidebook.
We also highly recommend taking one of the canoes or kayaks rented by Tarpon Bay Explorers through the mangrove paddling trail in Tarpon Bay. You want to go when the tide is high (the place is all mudflats at low tide, and you can't get as close to the shore), if possible early or late in the day. You do not have to be athletic or have either upper-body strength or previous paddling experience to do this, it is very safe and easy. Expect to get damp if you take a kayak, from the dripping of the paddle. We started off around 2, and once in among the mangrove realized that the best way to do it is slowly, paddling as little as possible, drifting along with the current. Pretty soon, if you don't make noise and keep your eyes open, you will start seeing things--birds, fish, horseshoe crabs, king conches promenading along the bottom, undersea life of all kinds (the water is mostly only a couple of feet deep). The birds are amazing--we saw several different species of herons, ditto egrets, ibis, duck-like birds, anhingas, pelicans, most of them big and showy enough, and unafraid enough, so that even nearsighted novices could see them easily and observe them at length. Neither of us is a birdwatcher, but we were mesmerized. We got lost, un-lost, and made it back just in time for closing, the light was beautiful and the birds were starting to settle down for the night where you could see them. The hardest part was hoisting our middle-aged carcasses out of the kayaks. Watch for tree branches though--there are a lot of fallen trees from storm damage, perfect habitat but you could poke out an eye, drifting under a fallen tangle of branches while looking at birds.
The rest of the time we systematically went to all the local Sanibel and Captiva beaches we could. Get there by 9 or 10, or at 4-5 pm, and you won't have a parking problem. They were all different and all interesting. Bring a small white bucket, and if you find a live scallop thrown up by the surf, stick it in a pail of seawater and observe it. It will open up and you will see the mantle and its two rows of blue eyes shining. Then return it to the water, since live collecting is prohibited on Sanibel and Captiva islands.
The Bailey-Matthews shell museum is definitely worth a stop, even if you are not a rabid shell collector. It is very small and well-laid out, and has something for everyone.
You can ride bicycles everywhere but be aware that the hotel prices were higher than the same bicycles rented from the source--Billy's. The distances are long, sunny and hot for the heavy, one-speed steeds they offer, so consider getting lighter ones with gears if you want to cycle places. After the first day (a 16-mile round trip on these behemoths) we wimpily returned to taking the car to the beaches.
Sanibel is expensive without being fancy. The winter residents are mostly retired folk, the transient visitors we saw were older people with nature interests and young families. The island closes down early and there is little to do at night but walk the beach or sit in a hammock under the stars, unless you take one of the numerous evening nature excursions on offer (which we never got to--another trip.) If a quiet, civilized vacation in a stunning and accessible natural environment is what you want, this is a perfect destination. And if you are a shell collector, you will probably not be disappointed--I am identifying my finds with the help of the very useful website of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, and have over 60 different species so far, including some rather choice items. Many more went back to the sea, to be found by other visitors or ground into Sanibel's fluffy, snowy sand.